The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

CIUS AND THE 70th ANNIVERSARY OF THE 1932-33 FAMINE: Making Known New Findings from Ukraine

By Bohdan Klid, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS)
Toronto, Canada, December 12, 2003

As part of worldwide efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) decided to make important new research and resources on the tragedy more widely known to the scholarly and wider communities in North America. This was done by organizing and co-sponsoring a series of lectures by three Ukrainian scholars-Drs. Yuri Shapoval, Hennadii Boriak and Olexiy Haran-at several scholarly and community events in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto.

Dr. Shapoval is affiliated with the Institute of Political and Ethnonational Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv. Dr. Boriak is director general of the State Committee of Archives of Ukraine, which oversees the entire complex of Ukraine's archival institutions. Dr. Haran is with the Political Science Department and School for Policy Analysis at the University of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

The first in the series of lectures took place on November 11 at the University of Toronto, co-sponsored by CIUS (Toronto Office) and the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies. In his talk "Tragic Pages of Ukrainian History and the Current Political Struggle: Debates Over the 1933 Famine," Dr. Olexiy Haran focused on the different interpretations of the famine among Ukraine's political groupings. He traced how the 1932-33 famine first became a part of public political discourse in the late perestroika period, and then in the 1990s was officially recognized by the Kravchuk and Kuchma regimes.

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Recently, on March 6, 2003, the Verkhovna Rada declared the famine a genocide and voted to bring the issue to the United Nations, and on May 24 issued a special declaration on the man-made famine. While the former received the support of 287 deputies, the latter was approved by only 226, barely a majority. The Communist Party abstained during both votes, but no deputies opposed the motions as it would have been political suicide to do so, according to Dr. Haran. He also concluded that president Kuchma is taking advantage of divergent views on the famine in his efforts to keep the opposition political parties divided.

On November 16, the second CIUS-sponsored famine event took place at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton. The commemoration, co-sponsored by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Edmonton Branch, featured talks by Drs. Yurii Shapoval and Olexiy Haran. Dr. Shapoval's talk focused on new archival findings in Ukraine and their importance in interpreting the nature of the famine. Dr. Haran spoke again on the way interpretations of the 1932-33 famine impacted the current political struggle in Ukraine.

On November 21 in Toronto, Drs. Shapoval and Boriak were the main speakers at a session of the National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies called "New Research on the Famine of 1933." The panel, sponsored by the Shevchenko Scientific Society, was chaired by Dr. Anna Procyk of City University of New York. Dr. Frederigo Argentieri of John Cabot University (Italy) commented on the two presentations. Drs. Boriak and Shapoval repeated their presentations before a Ukrainian community audience at St. Vladimir's Institute on Sunday, November 23. The symposium was co-sponsored by CIUS and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Toronto Branch.

Dr. Boriak's talk, entitled "The Ukrainian Famine of 1933: Sources and Source Publications," surveyed documentary publications on the famine and other sources. Prior to 1989, major research on the famine was conducted in the West. He marked the year 1990 as a "point of departure for the massive unveiling" of Communist party and Soviet government documents, which had previously been highly classified. Subsequently, more documents from party organs and administrative bodies, as well as repressive entities, have been published, including from regional archives.

Dr. Boriak also briefly identified the types of documents available to researchers of the famine, organizing these by groups. In total, there are more than 1,500 archival holdings that deal with the famine throughout Ukraine, containing more than 200,000 files. Dr. Boriak ended his talk with a survey of Internet resources on the famine. The State Committee of Archives in Ukraine maintains the site "Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933" (Holdomor v Ukraini 1932-1933), located at  The site contains links to Internet resources on the Ukrainian famine.

Yuri Shapoval made a final appearance to deliver his famine lecture In Winnipeg. His talk, sponsored by the Metropolitan Ilarion Centre for Ukrainian Orthodox Studies, took place on November 28 at the Cathedral of St. Mary the Protectress.

Summarized below is Dr. Shapoval's lecture, which he gave in Edmonton, Toronto and Winnipeg. The full text (in Ukrainian) is available in the press release section of CIUS's website:  Dr. Boriak's talk will be posted at a later date.

The title of Yuri Shapoval's talk was "The Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine: What Do We Know about It Today?" Dr. Shapoval began by noting that Soviet authorities had for decades denied that a famine had even occurred. Yet, he asked, how could a tragedy of such massive proportions, in which millions died, have been concealed, and to what degree was the political leadership of the USSR aware of what was happening? Further, could the holocaust of 1932-33 been averted, and why was nothing done to prevent such a cataclysm from occurring?

Recently, the publication of documents, especially on the activities of the highest leadership of the USSR and on the behaviour and responses of party officials of the Ukrainian SSR, has been particularly important in suggesting answers to these fundamental questions, some of which are still being debated to this day. The book Komandyry velykoho holodu (Commanders of the Great Famine, Kyiv, 2001), which Dr. Shapoval co-authored with Valerii Vasyliev, contains such documents.

Consisting of telegrams (including exchanges with Stalin), letters, reports, diary entries and other materials, the documents show the roles played by Stalin's henchmen-Viacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich-in the extraordinary grain procurement commissions in Ukraine and the north Caucasus. Publications of such documents, Shapoval stressed, allow researchers to reconstruct events as well as the paradigms underlining the thoughts of the communist chieftains. Their importance also lie in the evidence they provide against those who would deny the unique characteristics of the 1932-33 events or the absence of extraordinary actions taken in this or that region of the former USSR.

A distinctive feature of Ukraine and the north Caucasus was that more than _ of the total grain production of the former USSR came from these regions. Although recognizing that hunger had already claimed victims there in 1931, Stalin and the top leadership of the USSR accused Ukrainians of hoarding vast amounts of grain, and thus increased grain procurement plans for Ukraine. Local officials who protested or questioned the directives from above were expelled from the communist party and treated as traitors or saboteurs.

80% of raion (county) level party secretaries, for instance, were replaced in 1931-32. At the third conference of the Communist Party of Ukraine held in the summer of 1932-attended by Molotov and Kaganovich-attempts by local officials and some of the leadership of the Communist Party of Ukraine to point to the difficult circumstances in the countryside were ignored by Stalin's henchmen and the Kremlin.

In a letter to Kaganovich of August 11, 1932, Stalin expressed suspicions about the Ukrainian peasantry and of the loyalty of the entire Ukrainian party apparatus, which he described as dominated by followers of Petliura and agents of the Polish leader, Jozef Pi_sudski. He expressed fears that "Ukraine could be lost" and that it should be transformed in the shortest time possible into "a true fortress of the USSR" and "exemplary republic."

These Stalinist euphemisms, according to Dr. Shapoval, implied the following actions, regardless of the number of victims: (1) squeezing out of Ukraine the maximum amount of grain possible (justified by the need to modernize and feed the city populace); (2) conducting a thorough purge of all social spheres (justified by the supposed presence of latent Ukrainian nationalists and other enemies).

On October 22, 1932, the extraordinary commission headed by Molotov began its work in Ukraine. On October 30, 1932, in a report to Stalin, he harshly criticized the work of the Communist Party of Ukraine and then pressed forward with repressive actions against both the Ukrainian party and peasantry. From November 1932 to January 1933 the extraordinary commission squeezed an additional 90 million poods (one pood equals 36.11 lbs. or 16.38 kgs.) of grain from the Ukrainian peasants.

Special brigades composed of over 110,000 activists were sent to Ukraine's villages, receiving as compensation a portion of the looted grain and other foodstuffs. Lazar Kaganovich headed a similar commission in the north Caucasus and Pavel Poshtyshev in the Volga region of Russia. Postyshev's commission, according to Russian researchers, did not act as viciously as Molotov's, while Kaganovich's was aimed primarily against Ukrainians who lived in the Kuban.

Toward the end of 1932, Molotov, Kaganovich and Postyshev met with the head of the secret police in Ukraine, Vsevolod Balytsky, to undertake severe repressive actions, which were justified as measures to prevent the sabotage of grain procurements. On December 5, for example, Balytsky issued a directive to "destroy the counterrevolutionary underground and to land a decisive blow against all counterrevolutionary kulak-Petliura elements S in the village."

Shapoval listed the following measures taken against Ukrainian villages: (1) fines in kind (especially meat and potatoes) levied against individual households for not fulfilling grain procurement orders, while higher norms were levied against entire collective farms for alleged theft of collective farm property by individuals; (2) a prohibition of trade in potatoes, meat and animals; (3) a prohibition of commercial products procurement to villages (such as matches, salt and kerosene); (4) the establishment of a food blockade of Ukraine's borders by interior ministry troops and police (preventing peasants from fleeing the famine zones as well as prohibiting the importation of foodstuffs from Russia into Ukraine without special permission); (5) the institution of an internal passport system which excluded villagers, further restricting their mobility to flee the famine; (6) distress sales of valuables by villagers to special shops in exchange for food. (The amount of intake in these shops increased dramatically from 1931 to 1933.)

While the famine raged, the cover up commenced. Village councils were ordered to not list the cause of death upon registration. All entities were forbidden to register incidents of bloating or deaths caused by famine, except for organs of the GPU (predecessor of the OGPU-NKVD-KGB). In 1934, a new order was issued that all record books of vital statistics dealing with deaths for 1932-33 were to be sent to special units of the GPU, following which they were most likely destroyed.

On January 14, 1933, Maksim Litvinov, the Soviet foreign minister, in response to inquiries from abroad, denied that a famine was occurring. On February 23, 1933, the Soviet Politburo issued a directive restricting the movement of foreign correspondents in the USSR. At the same time, the Soviet Union was dumping grain at depressed prices on the international market to purchase machinery for industrialization.

It is clear that Western countries knew about the Ukrainian famine. On May 31, 1933, the Italian consul in Kharkiv wrote in his dispatch that "famine continues to rage and destroy people, and it is simply impossible to understand how the world can remain indifferent to this disasterS" The Manchester Guardian, commenting on the famine on November 21, 1933, noted that no areas of the USSR had suffered as much as Ukraine and the north Caucasus.

Dr. Shapoval pointed out that what further distinguished the situation in Ukraine from that of Russia was a concurrent shift in nationality policy in Ukraine. On December 14, 1932, Stalin and Molotov signed a resolution on behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Soviet government calling for the "correct implementation of Ukrainization" in Ukraine and in regions of significant Ukrainian settlement outside Ukraine. It also called for decisive struggle against so-called Petliurite and other counterrevolutionary elements. Shapoval concluded that this signaled the beginning of the end of Ukrainization policies as well as the start of anti-Ukrainian purges.

In 1933 a purge of the party and state leadership of the Ukrainian SSR indeed occurred and, importantly, Pavel Postyshev was appointed second secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Published documents show, Shapoval continued, how in 1933 Postyshev and his team-some of them party officials sent from Russia-implemented the Kremlin's policies of grain confiscations as well as the purging of so-called Ukrainian nationalists.

At a plenum of the Communist Party of Ukraine in November 1933 Postyshev boasted that collective farms in Ukraine had now "become bolshevik." He further linked the 1931-32 drop in grain production to alleged mistakes of the Communist Party of Ukraine in implementing the party's nationality policies. "There is no doubt," Postyshev concluded, " that without liquidating mistakes in implementing the nationality policies of the party, without destroying nationalist elements who had ensconced themselvesS in Ukraine, it would have been impossible to have overcome the slowdown in agriculture." The plenum approved a resolution that defined "local nationalism united with imperialist interventionists" as the main danger facing the party. The party thus justified the end to Ukrainization and the massive repressions, which began in 1933 and later merged into the 1936-38 "Great Terror."

Shapoval concluded that the famine of 1933 was an effective tool in transforming Ukraine into "an exemplary republic." Newly uncovered and published archival documents have identified "specific anti-Ukrainian accents" to the events. The new findings show that the extraordinary organization of particular measures against the Ukrainian peasantry mark the famine in Ukraine with the characteristics of a genocide.


Bohdan Klid